Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” deals with a very elderly and frail black woman, Phoenix, and the hardships inherent in her life.
Phoenix makes a periodic journey into town to obtain medicine for her little grandson, who has swallowed lye and will probably never wholly recover. Phoenix has made this journey so often that she can do it by a kind of interior radar, and thus her mind is free to wander while her feet stay on track. She meets only one person on the road, and thus the beginning of the story is dictated by her interior thoughts, which are somewhat confused and therefore confusing to us, the readers.
Yet Welty has no problem communicating this old woman’s grit and determination in the face of a world that often seems hostile and frightening—a world Phoenix cannot wholly understand.
Welled up inside Phoenix is a lifetime of hardship, brought about partially by her role in society: she is an old black woman in a white world, and she is thus cast into an inferior position in a world that considers her as unimportant as a gnat. A hunter she meets treats her patronizingly, calling her “Granny” and assuming that she, like a child, is going to town to see Santa Claus. Both the lady who ties her shoes for her and the first attendant at the clinic call her “Grandma”; the attendant rudely asks whether she is deaf because Phoenix does not immediately reply to her routine questions, and from that point on, she consistently treats Phoenix as if she were stupid.
This is ironic because there is so much inside Phoenix—so many years, so much pain, so much awareness. When, at the story’s end, she is finally treated with a little compassion at the clinic, Phoenix demonstrates a miraculous ability to accept the harsh circumstances of her life, and go on. Phoenix’s path is worn not only because she herself has had to travel it so many times, but because it symbolizes the path traveled by poor and oppressed people everywhere.
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